A good cup of coffee tastes nice.
But, a great cup of coffee exceeds that. It forms an entire sensory experience from start to finish that can wow you, even before you take the first sip, until long after you finish the last drop. This is the goal of specialty coffee: to let you taste a multitude of flavours and sensations in one cup.
We’re going to look at the 10 components you can find whilst tasting coffee. These are the same 10 things you will find on the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) coffee cupping form – a marksheet used to judge a cup of coffee on its various taste aspects, to see how good its quality is.
This form is highly technical. It may even come across as intimidating to coffee newcomers, but we’re going to break down each one in simple words right here. The next time you’re tasting a new coffee, you’ll be able to go through the same criteria professionals use to grade coffee – and you’ll see just how much fun it can be!
The aroma is the smell of your coffee. It’s the first thing that your senses detect when you lift the cup. The aroma is a great key factor as to whether or not you’ll like the coffee in hand. If a coffee’s aroma is one that reminds you of fruits or flowers, it’ll set you up for a great experience right from the start. Whereas a smoky, charred aroma will put people off. That’s why aroma is an important one to bear in mind.
Don’t rush or skip it, instead take time to fully enjoy the aroma. If you’re at a coffee cupping session, take in the aroma when you break the crust. If it’s espresso you’re drinking, bring the cup to your nose and stir it to break the crema. In both, you’re allowing the marvellous scents to rise up.
This is the fun bit of coffee! What will it be: strawberries? Chocolate? Maple syrup? Specialty coffee can taste of so many incredible flavours. Depending on the roast profile, processing method, and origin, it can take on a fruity and floral note, or more traditional tones of caramel, chocolate or malt. There are dozens of them, and to me this is the most fun part of tasting coffee.
I recommend grabbing a copy of the new Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel – published by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and World Coffee Research (WCR).
Here’s a tip: don’t worry about rushing to pinpoint a specific flavour such as lychee or blueberry. Instead, start with the broad category of said flavour. Is it a fruity flavour? If so, does it lean more towards a citrus or a berry flavour? Using the wheel as a reference, work your way from the inner categories to the outer specifics.
As a barista myself, I keep this flavour wheel close at hand when I am sampling new coffee beans. This is a method that can help improve your palate.
This is the taste that lingers in your mouth after you’ve swallowed the liquid coffee. You’ll usually taste it around the back of your tongue. It’s also known as the ‘finish’. A final “goodbye” from the coffee, if you will.
In good coffees, it’ll be sweet, long-lasting, and can even have flavour notes different from the actual coffee. In poor coffees, however, it’ll be sharp and bitter. You’ll want to reach for the nearest glass of water to rinse it away.
A yummy aftertaste that makes your mouth water is the mark of a great coffee – from where it was grown, how it was harvested, to how skillfully it was roasted.
Acidity is commonly misunderstood in coffee. The word acidity is commonly associated with the word ‘sour’, which is something that is usually unpleasant to taste.
But, in coffee, think of acidity as you would a fruit. Apples, oranges, and grapes – they all have acidity, but the acidity gives zest and brightness to them. It’s even what gives it sweetness. Good acidity makes coffee sparkle and shine. It tastes crisp and sweet, and makes for a pleasant feel on the tip of your tongue.
Normally, the lighter the roast, the higher the acidity. Which is why light roasted coffee beans are more likely to have taste notes reminiscent of fruits – its this acidity that gives off that unique flavour.
A coffee’s body is how it feels on your tongue. Is it smooth and tea-like? Is it syrupy and juicy? Or does it sit heavily on your tongue?
The body is highly dependent on the beans’ origin. Typically, coffee beans grown in African countries, such as Ethiopia, have a light and smooth body. Meanwhile, coffee beans from Southeast Asia, such as from Indonesia, have a heavier, denser mouthfeel.
There isn’t one that is better than the rest. A coffee with a dense body can taste equally good as one with a lighter body. Rather, it’s to do with how pleasant you find the mouthfeel as you drink it.
How harmoniously does the acidity, flavour, body, aftertaste, etc. all tie in together? A good cup of joe should be well-balanced, without any one element overpowering the others. If the flavours and components come together nicely, and complement each other into a fantastic sip, we’ll say it is well-balanced.
If, for example, it tastes a little too sour or bitter, then this offsets the balance, which results in a mediocre cup.
Uniformity means every cup should taste the same. This one is a little specific to coffee cupping sessions, or when roasters and baristas are tasting a new coffee. To make sure that the coffee is consistently good, they prepare and sample about 5 or more cups. The goal here is to taste and check to see if the taste of the coffee is uniform across all the cups.
This way, coffee professionals can be assured that the batch of coffee beans is actually of a consistent, high quality, before passing it on to you, as the consumers.
8. Clean Cup
Closely tied to uniformity, the “clean cup” refers to how clean the coffee tastes, from the very first sip right up to the aftertaste.
If there are any negative, unpleasant or dirty notes that do not belong in coffee, like soot, petroleum or burnt notes, the cup will fail this stage. It will be considered “tainted”.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. How sweet do you find the coffee to be?
Don’t try to compare coffee’s sweetness to a can of Coke, for instance. Rather, it’ll be hints in the coffee that remind you of the sweetness you’d get in a particular fruit, for instance.
You’re looking for subtle sweetness, or a “pleasing fullness of flavour”, according to the SCAA’s marksheet.
Step away from all the technicalities and just ask yourself a simple question: “how well did you enjoy it?”
This is where you can allow your personal opinion to shine through. A great coffee experience will always be subjective to each individual, and it’s about finding one that you enjoy best!